Sometimes I can’t resist skipping ahead in a book. Preparing for the “Eyewitnesses in the Gospels” seminar coming up June 5, 2011, here in Atlanta, I decided to start a second book by Richard Bauckham, The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John. When I saw the final chapter, “The 153 Fish and the Unity of the Fourth Gospel,” I had to skip ahead. And here are some interesting facts that sound like a combination of the show Numb3rs and biblical scholarship . . .
Gematria is the rabbinic term for finding numerical patterns in the biblical text. It is not a term that was used in the time the New Testament was written. But numerical patterns are definitely part of the biblical style. Umberto Cassutos commentary on Genesis, for example, notes the extensive use of numerical patterns there. In many sections, words are used either seven times or in multiples of sevens, and numerous other patterns emerge for those who like to find them. It was in some biblical texts part of the literary art of writing.
Triangular numbers, which are relatively rare, are the sum of all the numbers in sequence that lead up to them. 28, for example, is a triangular number (1+2+3+4+5+6+7) and so on with 36, 45, 55, 66, 78, 91, 105, 120, 136, and 153.
What does this all have to do with the Gospel of John?
Well, the observation of Bauckham began with John 21:11, “So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and although there were so many, the net was not torn.”
Yes, 153 is a triangular number. M.J.J. Mencken wrote a dissertation on it in 1985 (Numerical Literary Techniques in John). Bauckham lists three examples from Mencken’s work:
(1) The Prologue of John (1:1-18) has 496 syllables, a triangular number (and also a “perfect” number, meaning it is equal to the sum of its divisors). And 496 is the numerical value (Greek letters, as well as Hebrew, have numerical values) of the important Johannine word monogenes (μονογενης, only, as in John 1:14).
(2) The next section (1:9 – 2:11) has 1,550 syllables (triangular would be 1,540) which is the value of ho christos (ο χριστος, the Messiah or the Christ).
(3) Yeshua’s prayer to the Father in 17:1b-26 has 486 (triangular would be 496) words which is the value of pater (πατερ, father).
Bauckham had another example suggested to him in a personal conversation with Asher Finkel: the longer form of Yeshua’s name is Yehoshua, which in Hebrew has the same numerical value as “lamb of God” (שה האלהים). Hmm, John 1:29, 35-36).
So, what is up with 153, the triangular number found in John 21:11? It is the value of “sons of God” in Hebrew (בני האלהים). Why not the Greek numerical equivalent (τεκνα θεου)? That has a value of 860, which is not triangular and which would be too large a catch of fish to be believable.
Furthermore, Bauckham suggests that the author of John (the Beloved Disciple, a.k.a. the Elder John, not the son of Zebedee who was one of the twelve) may have known the gematria in Ezekiel 47 (the river of life passage). People there will fish from En-Gedi to En-Egla’im, which have the numerical values of 17 and 153 respectively (גדי, עגלים), both triangular numbers. And the obvious comparison is the issue of fishing in the world to come in John 21 as well as Ezekiel 47.
How cool is all that?
Oh, and the most famous triangular number that also has bearing on the New Testament? Yep, 666.
Here is a list of triangular numbers for enthusiasts: 0, 1, 3, 6, 10, 15, 21, 28, 36, 45, 55, 66, 78, 91, 105, 120, 136, 153, 171, 190, 210, 231, 253, 276, 300, 325, 351, 378, 406, 435, 465, 496, 528, 561, 595, 630, 666, 703, 741, 780, 820, 861, 903, 946, 990, 1035, 1081, 1128, 1176, 1225, 1275, 1326, 1378, 1431…